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Nebraska Governor Vetoes Moratorium on Executions

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Mike Johanns on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have made his state the first in the nation to impose a moratorium on executions, saying it would only cause more pain for the families of murder victims.

Johanns branded the measure “poor public policy” that would “at a minimum be utilized to advance further unnecessary criminal appeals by those currently sentenced to death row in Nebraska.”

The state’s single legislative chamber sent the call for a two-year moratorium to Johanns last week on a 27-21 vote, three short of what it would take to override his veto. The Legislature scheduled an override vote for today.

In vetoing the measure, Johanns, a Roman Catholic lawyer, rejected pleas from the pope and the American Bar Assn., which said Nebraska would be taking a “courageous and important lead among states.”

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Proponents of the moratorium in Nebraska and other parts of the country expressed disappointment at the governor’s action. Still, the fact that a legislature in a conservative heartland state voted for the moratorium is another sign of “a growing trend to reexamine the death penalty for a lot of reasons, including fairness, the possibility of mistake and problems with racial bias,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, a group favoring the abolition of capital punishment.

Moratorium legislation was defeated in five other states this year and is pending in Pennsylvania. The Illinois House of Representatives passed a nonbinding moratorium in March and has commenced a study of how the death penalty is being utilized in that state. The state Supreme Court and the governor also have launched studies.

The flurry of activity in Illinois has been spurred by publicity over a dozen cases--including two this year--in which men sentenced to death were cleared as a result of subsequent investigations and appeals. Nationally, 79 people sentenced to death since 1973 have been later found not guilty, including three in California. There have been 546 executions during the same period.

The Nebraska measure called for a detailed review of about 1,300 homicide cases since 1976 to assess whether the death penalty is being fairly meted out to minorities, poor people and others.

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There have been 168 people convicted of first-degree murder in that time but only 13 have received death sentences. Thus far, Nebraska has executed three men: two blacks and one white. Ten people are on the state’s death row: eight whites, one African American and one American Indian.

Despite the relatively low number of executions, the prime sponsor of the moratorium, Republican state Sen. Kermit Brashear of Omaha, who favors the death penalty, said that he worries whether capital punishment is being administered equitably. He pushed the moratorium measure, with the support of longtime capital punishment foe Ernie Chambers, the only legislator who is black.

Brashear expressed concern this spring that death sentences are not being administered proportionately. He said he believes that a number of the 155 convicted murderers in the state who have received life sentences had committed crimes as horrendous as those who got the death penalty.

Johanns had been urged to veto the measure by state Atty. Gen. Don Stenberg, a Republican, who issued an advisory opinion Monday saying he believes the moratorium would be unconstitutional. Stenberg contended that the measure would violate the state Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine, as a well as a constitutional amendment that gives the Board of Pardons the sole power to grant reprieves.

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Stenberg contended that the moratorium, in essence, would amount to a reprieve. Brashear disagreed, stressing that a reprieve can only be granted in a specific case.

On Wednesday, Johanns acknowledged that opinion is split among knowledgeable lawyers. In the end, he said, he focused on the families of the victims and the victims themselves.

“The death penalty is the law of our state,” Johanns said. “I feel strongly that part of my role as governor is to do all that I can to carry out the law for the benefit of the victims and their families. The moratorium would be just one more roadblock to bringing closure for them.”


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